by Kate Cobey
“Just don’t treat her like anything less than a person,” Mama fretted from the front row of the cab. Never mind that this was the fourth time we’d come to see her, and we’d heard the same plea every single time. Cautiously, Mama asked the white hospital archway next to her, “May we enter?”
“Card?” responded the building.
“You don’t need to be so formal. It’s just a robot,” Nina complained from the back. “It’s aaaall robots, here.”
Mama gave us both a sour look (as if this were my fault) before swiping her card across a slit in the cabby’s front seat. Both the car and the entryway flashed green, assuring her that her identity had been validated. Nina and I piled out, letting the car coast back down the road, and walked through the automatic doors into the immaculate white lobby. As a courtesy, there were human attendants at the front desk, which Mama approached with her well-practiced hospital smile. “Is Haley Dominguez still in 2686?”
The human attendant, whose only real job was to smile, did so wonderfully as she pulled up the information. “She is indeed! She’ll be back from her daily stretches in ten minutes, but you’re free to meet her when she returns.”
“We should set her present out on the bed,” Mama said, her fingers flicking the cross on her favorite bracelet. “I’m sure Delia will be there soon. They always visit around this time.”
We knew this, too, but Nina and I were respectfully silent. The attendant waved us over to the nearest elevator, which deposited us on a white floor whose familiar halls were sporadically hung with patient-drawn paintings and whose tiling flashed with ripples of colorful light. Nursebots, whose screens were affixed with simplistic human smiles, roved between rooms. In an attempt to imitate a much kinder environment, I could scent lavender in the air, barely masking something familiar and more sterile.
“Meet you there,” I said, “I’m going to go to the bathroom, assuming they haven’t removed them yet. I’m assuming the human patients still need to pee.”
“Be quick, Gabi.”
I was already gone down the hall. The bathrooms were usually by the thirties, which is where I was assigned back when I’d been here. Absentmindedly, I almost hit a nursebot, which swerved around me with the grace of something designed to handle children, and found myself in an empty hall, a girl frighteningly similar to my cousin standing before me, ghostlike.
“Haley?” I asked.
“Damn!” yelled the girl before bolting down the hallway. I looked overhead for cameras, as if to say to surveillance, are you reading this shit? but when I followed her around the corner I found nothing but the bathrooms. When I returned to the eighties and opened the door, I found Haley with my relatives, all of them sprawled around her as she ripped tape off the beanie we’d got her.
She glanced up at me, no different than I’d seen her on her last visit. Her eyes were bright with a fierce curiosity not even healthy people had, which made her look more than living. Her skin was pale, but it was more due to a lack of sunlight than illness. The only real indications of her condition were her bald head and the tags around her arm, which I knew from experience were embedded with trackers.
“Did you just…?” I asked.
Menacingly, she muttered, “Got back from physical therapy.”
“She doesn’t like to talk about it,” said Tita Delia, already wrapping Mama in a long hug. Not only were they twins, but they shared the same fashion sense and bracelet, making them effectively impossible to tell apart. My aunt’s attention turned to me as she drew away. “I’m so glad you could make it, Gabriella. How’s Wesleyan?”
The air hummed with electricity, most of which was emanating from the humans. I sat on one of the plastic chairs across from the bed. “It’s good. Fine. We’re on break for almost two months, now.”
“She’s at the bottom of her classes,” chorused Nina, “So nothing has changed, really.”
“You’re just bitter that Brown waitlisted you. I hope you enjoy state school, you plebeian.”
Nina’s face went mutinous. Mama gave a quick, uneasy laugh and said, “So Delia, how’s–”
“I’ve been coding,” Haley announced from her bed, slipping on her beanie. “I can almost make my own website now, but it’s super basic. I’m going to learn a bunch of Java and make my own flash games, so I’ve got something to do.”
“You’re really into computers.” Mama leaned in.
“She’s my little hacker,” Aunt Delia said, proudly.
“Mama, hacking and coding are about as similar as…” Haley paused. “They’re not the same. At all.” She rolled her eyes hard.
That was the point where the mothers decided to pick up their previous conversation, leaving Nina on her phone and me sitting with my hands steepled between my legs, reminiscing. Haley’s eyes lingered over her computer, lips pursed, arms crossed. I wasn’t sure how to proceed in a way that wasn’t condescending, which was usually a cue to keep my mouth shut, and she was giving me the stink-eye. When Mama finally got to her feet, giving Aunt Delia one last far-too-long hug, she led us out of the room, the tense undercurrent of sterile hospital scent speaking for her.
“Not going well?” I asked.
“She’s in the Middle Finger, so no,” Nina said. The massive ‘budget’ hospital in the middle of town had several nicknames, none of them complementary.
Mama shook her head, the cross on her bracelet ringing as it collided with her finger. “Some things just… happen, kids. God has a reason for it, and some day, when all of this is over, we might understand why that is. The best thing you can do is keep up the good fight, keep smiling, keep laughing…”
“Didn’t look like she was doing either of those things to me,” Nina said.
Mama’s facade dropped. “You’d be pissed, too, if you had cancer. Gabriella had ten times the grace you’ve ever had, in any situation.”
“Hey, I was only here for a few months to treat a barely malignant skin cancer. No need to compare molehills and mountains,” I said. “I just want her to know I’m there. Could I bring something in sometime?”
“You’re wonderful, Gabi,” cooed Mama.
“Miss Wonderful,” Nina needled, just as the car pulled around the corner, stopping before us.
I was not wonderful.
I was curious.
Haley Dominguez was not in her room when I entered at 7 PM, sharp, but the automatic door still opened. I slipped inside, beanie in hand, and found a closed computer, which, being a good cousin, I opened. The pang of guilt rolled over to panic as I found a browser window with my own bank account staring me right in the face. When Haley returned her face rapidly took on a look of shock to equal my own. She reached with a trembling hand for the red emergency button on her counter.
“Haley?” My voice shook.
Haley said, “Back away.”
“Haley,” I repeated. “That’s my bank account.”
“You were away, and I figured you wouldn’t check. It’s okay. Now that you’re back, no one will believe you,” she said, lowering her hand. “And I said back away. Now.”
I stepped back. Haley ran forwards and clutched her computer against her chest, like a small animal. Her defiant eyes bored into mine, and I felt like I had as a kid at the beach, when a crab I’d captured raised its pincers towards my raw, pink fingers.
“You’re outside of my visiting hours,” she snapped.
“Your door opened. It only does that if you’ve put those as your visiting hours.Which either means you wanted to enter as a logged ‘guest’ or you planned on someone else coming in here. While we’re on the subject, can you tell me why you needed to rob a college student? Just because I have aid doesn’t mean that I’m loaded. I might not be in debt, but I am very much still broke and jobless.”
Haley huffed. “Do you even know what it’s like here?”
Irrelevant, but I was playing her game, now. “I was your age. I remember seeing my parents twice a day, at best, the doctors once, and a thousand hours of video games and equally scared children who barely wanted to be social during ‘friendship hours’ in between. Of course I know.”
“Well, there are ways out of that.” She paused. “Like mechfighting.”
“You can’t do that without a…” Everything clicked. “A legal ID number, which is front and center on my bank page. How long have you been…?”
“Like, two months, geez.” Haley threaded her fingers together, and they paled, revealing the lines of bone beneath them. Imagining her as some terrible maverick was near impossible, but her hands were clasped with conviction. All I had to do to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming was stare her down and see that bright, dangerous brown of her hawk eyes.
“How’d you hack into my bank account?”
“It’s not even real hacking, you ninny. I just knew your obvious security questions. The real hacking was gaming this place. The visiting. The wristband. The security. The surveillance.” Her eyes were everywhere but on me, racing through thousands of little solutions I could never understand. “My exit’s on floor 13. I’ve got an administrative key.”
“Mama’s little hacker,” I joked.
“I’ve been here for weeks , using Wi-Fi routed through a VPN in the next country over. I’ve learned enough to take out the decrepit bots here. It doesn’t matter if I go to jail anyways, and no one will believe it, so no danger. I bet it. No one will believe you either, so you shouldn’t turn me in.”
“I don’t know,” I sighed, but my shoulders were already slackening. “I should turn you in, but I guess I could come see your next match, to determine if it’s safe or not.”
Her face lit up. “You’re wonderful,” she said, hugging me tight.
I was not wonderful.
I was terrified.
“On your left, we have Rianna DeWhite in the Starfall!” yelled an announcer as the thirty-foot mecha thundered into the stadium, almost but not quite human in its armored, bipedal stance. The crowd didn’t exactly erupt with joy, seeing as there were under three hundred people there, all looking as though they were experiencing a bad hangover. It was a stadium filled with local college students and vultures looking to line their pockets.
“Gabriella Angelos in the Angel!” The rental beast came out bedecked in white. Sitting pretty in the cockpit, the pilot’s face was hidden behind a dazzling monochrome outfit and a helmet connecting her motor cortex to the robot’s movements. She was smaller than most, but the rental beast was smaller than most mechs: a sleek work of metal and light that gave her the countenance of an angel, albeit one slimmed down to the point of looking like it should hardly be functional. No one needed to know that she was even smaller than she should be, or what they’d find if they removed that helmet. “Fight!”
The mech thundered forward, and the wail from its speakers should have brought the stadium down. “Yeaaaaa!” a voice cried through a synthesizer, sounding adult, able-bodied, physically fit, screeching as its glistening fist slammed into the Starfall’s mechanical flesh. The Starfall stumbled back on malformed feet, then moved forward, going in for a low kick, but the Angel jumped out of the way. I’d never seen a mecha jump, given their weight, but it only needed a few inches to fly over the kick. The Starfall staggered, and the Angel struck it on its weak side, capitalizing on the imbalance.
Cockily, it placed a foot on the fallen mech. The Starfall’s turbo sputtered to life, red flames belching from its back, and it knocked the Angel off. The reanimated Starfall strode forward, and blue flames emerged like wings from the Angel’s back, jetting it forwards as it soared just above the ground. As it closed in on its quarry, the Angel raised its feet before slamming them against the cockpit of the Starfall, which fell again. The tinted cockpit window was busted, and its motors were dead.
“Game!” called the referee, and the Starfall’s cockpit ejected an uneasy teenager. Several bystanders rushed the field to help the pilot back onto their feet, and I felt my own heart stop as the surviving mecha stomped off-field.
I met Haley down at the mech-rental stand. “No injury, you waive the price,” she said, her voice twisted into an intimidating growl even I couldn’t handle. She looked the part, too–her body was padded to feign muscle and heft. “That was the deal. And don’t you dare forget who you bet on today.”
The man leered. “You play dangerous games. You know the rental on a Diviner 6000HP ain’t fuckin’ cheap.”
“I play to win,” she said, unwavering. “Tourney’s in two weeks.”
“And you’ve failed to procure the entry fee.”
“I’ll have it to you today.”
“Whatever you say, shorty.”
Haley turned and flinched, though her helmet’s tinted visor hid her expression. “You’ll have that fee today, huh?” I asked. “Planning to use my wallet, too?”
The man looked between us. We were hardly twins, but I did resemble a certain Gabriella Angelos whose information had been on the cards. Haley yanked me back through the crowds towards the women’s changing room. “Wait here,” she said, and returned later in civilian clothes, affixing her beanie. “You’re going to get my cover blown.”
“You are going to die,” I said.
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t going to die.” She threw her arms out. “Go ahead! Tell them! Ruin my life already!”
I imagined Mama, cross jingling on her bracelet as she paced the floor of my hospital room, and Aunt Delia praying under the wooden cross of our neighborhood church, one of the last ‘dumb’ buildings left standing instead of converted to intelligent superpolymer. I looked up at the stone of the building, and towards the Underground, strewn with false sunlight.
“Everything happens for a reason,” I echoed our mothers. “I suppose I was meant to find you, and you were meant to pilot that thing, using my social information. I mean, the way you fought was kind of…”
“Awesome,” she started. “Incredible. Magical. Liberating. Wonderful.”
It was not wonderful.
It was cathartic.
I hadn’t meant to come to Haley’s first tournament match, but I had. I said I was getting groceries, and then I proceeded to take a two-hour detour that so happened to lead me into the underground, as was my prerogative as an adult. Mama would think I was procrastinating on my winter work, which I was.
So I watched the Angel tear the Doomseer to pieces from the far back. Well, not to pieces… the battle was clean, but equally decisive. It must be bracketed, I thought as the Angel wheeled around, halfway through turbo for the finishing aerial strike. I hadn’t seen another robot attempt a similar maneuver, which meant it had to be something inherent to the adjustable booster placement, or the model, or to the Angel itself. Maybe to Haley.
When the referee called “Game!” in that same animated voice I suspected might be robotic, I found myself lingering. The arena was as clean as a newly-iced skating rink, a sharp contrast to the gum-cluttered, tagged benches of the stadium. It was almost comforting, being here, on benches that creaked like the pews in our neighborhood, on wood that knew and felt and heard better than the machines could. I got out a house key to carve my name into my seat when a hand caught my own.
“Don’t,” said Haley, “and you should stay. The next match is ranked 1-8, so it’ll be funny, at least. The driver thinks he’s tough shit, ‘cause he bought his own mech.”
“It’s nearly seven. You need to be back at the hospital,” I said.
“You can leave, fraideycat.” The tease sounded different from her synthesized voice, but there was still that mocking jingle to it that only a preteen girl could have mustered.
The mechas roared to life, the crowd shouted names back and forth (Sam Elton’s Drama, Lawrence Oland’s Red Rover), and the machines clashed,their hands gripped in each other until metal began creaking. The girl beside me shifted into gear, becoming still, intent.
As the mechas broke contact, stomping backward, she whispered, “Oland’s going for it.” He did. His punch deflected harmlessly off the other machine. “Look at the jab there. On a human, that would be effective, but not so much on a mecha. The weak points are different. Going for a cockpit is bad form, like the face…”
“You broke the cockpit in the first match I went to!” I said.
“I got messy.” Her synthesized voice hummed, and she gestured for me to settle down. “It’s relaxed in cockfights, not so much in tournaments. Okay. So, the Rover’s at least keeping his balance. Remember, mechas are big turtles. Poor grounding. The whole battle is a test of keeping your center.”
The machines exchanged a few blows, but neither gave ground.
Haley leaned forward. “There.”
Five seconds and one destabilizing blow later, they called the match in Drama’s favor. A subdued round of cheers echoed in the stadium.
“They only care about the real winners,” she said. “They’ll know who that is very soon. You’ll be here, right?”
“‘Course,” I said and wished, for the sake of my lackluster smile, that I, too, had a helmet. “You want me to bring you back?”
She nodded, and after one quick clothes change later, we were on the subway again. When we arrived outside the Middle Finger, she fidgeted slightly. “I’ll go around back. If you have the right key, you can fit the right lock. No matter how much tech we smother it with, that’s all it is.”
I thought of a lock deep in our bodies, in our cells, rusted open. “I’ll… meet you up there.”
“You’re not going home?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Fine.” Turning halfway down the street, she yelled back, “Be ready to deal with Mama Delia.”
I smiled in spite of myself, not for the first time. I entered the building, swiping my ID card, but as I returned it to my pocket, I found for a second I could hardly recognize it as my own face. I remembered a child in her space, who would have been thrilled to know the woman she would become… I hoped. Without a word, I passed the receptionist and headed into flickering hallways. It wasn’t the first time the colorful lights triggered a fight or flight response, as they’d once given a pre-teen the impression she was being watched by death itself.
I’d been lucky.
She’d be lucky.
Haley was curled up on the bed when I entered, her computer open to a mecha battle, her eyes darting from punch to punch. I settled on the bed next to her, not risking a reassuring back pat. “Maybe you should leave,” she warned, not looking up. “It’s going to be depressing.”
“I know this is… it’s tough. And you want to see your parents, but you don’t want to see them, and the way they look at you, like a ragdoll. And you hate that you can’t magic away their fears or even stand up to make them feel better all the time, but it’ll be fine, okay? Everything happens for a reason. God wants the best–”
“Oh my God, shut up!” she yelled, slamming the laptop shut. “Nothing happens for a reason. Nothing. That’s why you have to do what you want to do, before you can’t do it. Because otherwise, you just… you just won’t!”
I paused, floored. “What about murder?”
“No, that’s bad,” Haley clarified, sounding young again. “I mean, good things.”
“You’re lying to everyone you know and manipulating the coding of government property.”
“But the fighting is good. It’s the only good thing in the world.”
Tita Delia did not walk in the way my mother did, with a smile and a pitying kindness. Tita Delia walked in with her heels clicking, pausing only when she saw me there. Even then, her frown remained. In a poisoned-honey voice, she said, “I need to talk to Haley. Alone.”
“What’s the matter?” I rose to face her.
I leaned forward. “Does it have to do with absences?”
“It does indeed.”
“Oh, that’s all my fault. See, Haley’s a bit of a troublemaker…” I said.. Haley clutched my arm, and I could feel it shaking. “She’s bored senseless cooped up in here, so the two of us went out. I didn’t know it was against the rules, seeing as she’s fairly mobile.”
“I wasn’t aware you were so close.” Tita Delia sounded shocked.
“We’ve bonded.” Technically not a lie. “I just want to give her the best. She deserves the best.”
Tita Delia hugged me. It was a Mama-to-Tita hug, big, wonderful, and crushing, trying to smash you into a fine paste with the power of love. “Alright, alright! You know I’m a big softie at heart. I’m glad my little girl has someone to talk to. You know, Haley, you can always bring your friends in. I haven’t seen Adele in a while.”
“Mama, don’t talk about my friends,” Haley sighed.
We sat and feigned normalcy, with Tita Delia chiding Haley on schoolwork. I caught a look from Haley of intense fondness, and I heaved a sigh of relief.
On the way back, Tita Delia ranted. “The diagnoses keep getting worse and worse, and we never tell her, but she always knows, and we’re always working just to pay for the accommodations, so she thinks we’ve abandoned her, I just know it. She’ll hardly even talk to me anymore, and I–you don’t understand how much it means to me to have you.”
She’d elected to sit in the back of the cab with me, and she was on the verge of tears. Her charm was already ringing out in alarm on her wrist, and the sound was like metal fists, working in precision. I feigned a smile.
“You’re such a wonderful cousin,” she said at last.
I was not wonderful.
I was complicit.
“We could try another round of chemo, but the side effects make it near impossible for her to do much of anything besides sit there, waiting,” Tita Delia fretted, over speakerphone. It was a terrible tradition to do important family calls in the living room, the four of us clustered around the phone. “It might give her a few more months. As it is, we have a year. That’s a few more months before it gets… I just can’t take away what agency she has left. She’d try to break out of the hospital first.”
Mama gave me a pointed look, as if I were going to stop such a thing from happening.
“Whatever you decide, we’re staying strong for you. You’re in our prayers, always,” she promised. “Love you, Dee.”
“Love you, Cee.”
I went to my room, grabbed something old off the shelves, and called a car. I felt like I was staring down the muzzle of a loaded gun, following it into darkness, and I found myself with frostbitten fingers wedged in an old book, staring up at the white obelisk of a public hospital: impersonal, beautiful, cold.
Haley was in her room on a twelfth-generation handheld, VR not enabled. The return to classical modes of gaming had hit the scene hard; sometimes, it was best to distance yourself. Haley clicked the device off. “We talking strategy again? Big match is in three days.”
“Actually, no. I brought you a present,” I said, standing in the doorway.
“Not another beanie,” she moaned. “Don’t you know anything about me besides the fact that I’m bald?”
“It’s a poem I thought you’d like.” I passed her the book. She flipped to the bookmarked page, which had been highlighted, analyzed, and dog-eared to death. “Actually, it’s a book of poems that Abuelo gave me, but I thought you’d like the one.”
“Do not go gentle,” she read. “Oh. We learned about these. They’re called… no, it’s not villas. Damn!”
“Villanelles,” I suggested. “It’s a poem that repeats itself.”
She scoffed at the page, a reaction not unlike my sister’s when I tried explaining why I found anything of value on a page that couldn’t talk back. Haley’s eyes rolled back to me. “I bet I could write one. It’s just the same few phrases, over and over again. What kind of a rip off is that?”
“I can barely write a good, coherent villanelle,” I said. “Harder than it looks.”
“Then what are you spending all that money on? Aren’t you an English major?”
“Don’t you write anything?”
“I’m more interested in literary analysis. I used to write, when I was young, but I never got very good at it. Look, I’ll be back in three days to bring you out for your final match. This is the last time I help you, so you could try to be a little more appreciative. English is to me what mechas are to you.”
She tenderly closed the book. “I want your words. Don’t you have a poem on your phone or something?”
I sat beside her and opened my phone. I did, indeed, have notes going back for several years. Deep in the slimy archives of my preteen soul lay several poems, all of which were awful. I slid around various stages of angst and found myself pinned in the middle, with the only poem that didn’t feature some overblown vulnerability or a spewing of profanity. It was short, probably written for some dreadfully sunny contest, and all written in halting AA-BB lines, the kind that made my free-verse loving soul want to vomit.
I had to give it to her.
“For all the world, the young sunflower
gives its face for just one hour
and when the sun descends to rest
the flower falls at its behest
it waves goodbye to fields and fun
to days well lost or bitterly won
to trees, to beasts, to rivers, to roads,
to storms, to springs, to small abodes,
it waves goodbye to fields and birds
to secrets whispered, overheard
to all the land, all the divine
and then to me, though it was mine
though you may sleep in your yellow sea
my flower, rise once more to me.”
She leaned on me as I read. Her body was warm, but only just, like a blanket that had been held several hours prior. “It’s wonderful,” she teased, mimicking our mothers’ swooping accents. “No, but really, I like your words better.”
My poem was not really wonderful.
It was unpolished.
“Haley. Get up.” My fingers drew back. Admittedly I was afraid to even touch her, when she was lying like that, so still and hooked up to the machines. The oxygen tank rasped for her, a cruel imitation of her synthesizer.
Her voice wheezed through the mask. “How long do we have?”
“An hour. I gave us buffer time. Haley, you didn’t tell me…”
“Treatment was right after you left last time,” she said, pulling off the mask. She tripped off the bed and gripped its edge, swearing as she dragged herself up. Shaking from the effort of moving, she said, “Carry me.”
“I said, you have to carry me there.” A wave of blue light from those dreadful colored panels in the halls swept the walls of the blank white room, like the blue flames of the Angel. “Please.”
I lifted her up. She was lighter than snow, angels, air, anything. I used to be afraid of touching others, of the way the radiation might corrupt their cells the way it had mine, but now I wanted to clutch her so tightly, so she couldn’t float out of my grip to somewhere she could not return from. “Thirteenth floor?”
A small murmur of assent left her lips as I carried her downstairs. She beckoned for me to stop beside a security lock with a quick tug of my hair, then shuffled on my back to insert a little chip into the wall. The machine screamed before it relented, allowing us out onto a fire escape that hadn’t been updated for at least two hundred years, regardless of the white, modern facade of the Middle Finger’s front face. Crouched low, I stumbled down rickety steps. The scent of garbage wafted up from below us, and Haley coughed twice, burying her face in my back.
“We have to turn around,” I said.
She gripped my hair again, which hurt. “I’ll drag myself there.”
The steps pounded in time with my head, but by the time I felt common sense return, I was on the subway with her, racing through the darkness. I could feel eyes on us both, and when we left the train, she dragged me into the stadium. “Please just get me in the suit. I want people to look at me like a human being again.”
I checked out the rental suit for her, and she came out of the girl’s changing room on her feet, at least. “Are you worried?” I asked.
“Robots don’t feel fear, dumbass,” the synthesizer whined. She looked toward the fighter entrance, past which lay the rental robots, including the reserved Angel, its sleek white body a thing that was more than human. She walked into the light, and I stood there for a long time, throat dry. I checked my phone for messages. I closed it. I checked it again.
I could have called the police.
I could have called Tita Delia.
I bet ten dollars on the Angel and sat in the far back.
When she entered, the earth shook around her. “Gabriella Angelos in the Angel!” roared the announcer and the crowd with equal fervor. I yelled until my throat was hoarse, and when the Azrael approached on the other side, almost a twin (the same model, ranked 2, piloted by Daniel Brumman, engineer, always feints to the left) to the Angel, I fell silent. The crowd cheered so much louder for her. She had earned some of them so much money. She had come out of nowhere, glistening, and she–
The battle started frighteningly fast. Both of them went for the kill, igniting turbo, and when the Angel went in for the kick, the Azrael took it head on, arms raised. The shield system present in their model, the Diviner 6000 HP, was just enough to take a turbo hit from the naturally lighter system. The lack of bulk provided mobility, but it also translated to a lack of momentum. The Angel drew back and roared. A taunt.
The Azrael feinted and the Angel nailed it with a punch around the side, knocking it off balance. The battle became a catfight as both went down, wrestling, trying to pin each other with the human agility and tactility the Diviner series were so known for, both machines thrown off balance like planets out of orbit. The Angel threw the Azrael again, again, and again, trying to crack the white body open, and the engines heaved with frustration. A well-placed kick sent the Angel toppling back, and my heart hurt as I saw Haley’s head slam the back of the cockpit.
Her connection with the helmet almost severed right there, ending the match, but as she adjusted herself, so did the Angel. Its fist blazed with energy. The Angel screamed. The Azrael rounded on it, unthrowable. Unshakable. Inevitable.
The two machines burst to life, grinding out the last of their fuel. The Angel lunged, leading with its fists. The Azrael did not block, but readied its own blow, preparing to slam the cockpit… just as the Angel swung into position, that old, beautiful finishing kick again, hitting the core of the Azrael with incredible force.
The Angel was shaking. I could hear its grieving breath throughout the stadium. Smoke billowed from the thrusters, and the Azrael raised one hand as the Angel placed its foot directly on its opponent’s heart.
“Game!” called the announcer, and the crowds cried out louder than I’d ever heard them before. The entire world was alive with noise, and the Angel simply lifted its foot from its fallen enemy and exited the arena.
I waited for Haley at the entrance.
“Third call for Gabriella Angelos. If you see anyone in the Angel’s suit, please contact the desk. Otherwise, the prize will go to Brumman, by default. Third call for Angelos.”
A slim girl in a beanie walked out of the women’s changing room.
“I saw you pull up,” I said. “Risky. You had the kick, but you also opened yourself for a hit across the deck. Could have been fatal, both to you and the ship.”
“I wanted to go out fighting, lose a big one and end it there, but I keep winning.”
She was too good, of course, we both knew that, but her eyes were intent on mine. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
“I thought you didn’t like villanelles,” I said.
“Calling Angelos. Final call for Angelos.” The announcer’s voice was thick with irritation. The tension in the lobby was sharper than the click of Tita Delia’s heels.
“Can we do it?” It wasn’t a big prize. It was merely the kind of thing that might help.
She shook her head. “If you do it, they’ll figure out we cheated. If I do it, they’ll know who I am.”
“Then what do we do?”
She hoisted herself up around my neck. “Let’s go home.”
When we returned to the hospital room, we had ten minutes at best before Tita Delia and Mama were set to come in. We sat together on the edge of her bed, and her eyes drooped, her whole body hunched over.
“You’ll be here tomorrow,” she said.
“I’ve got five days before I go to Wesleyan. But I’ll be back in the summer. There will be tournaments then.”
She attempted to uncurl her back. “I’ll just sneak out without you until you come back. I’ll keep you filled in over the computer. We can use some other chat server. No one will even know it’s us, because you’re so worried about getting caught.”
“It was a really clean win,” she said. “You should know that, even though you’re a scrapper who’s never even gotten in a mech. Next season, I’ll swing around with a new identity, get them to wipe my names off the record. We’ll start again. Maybe you can get in one, too. I bet you’d be great.”
“Course,” I said. I could practically hear the twin footprints down the hall.
She leaned into my side, pressing her beanie against my jacket, against the long scar left by skin cancer, years ago. “Isn’t it amazing how pretty it is, though? The way the… the…” She struggled for words for a while, and I had no way to fill it in, so we drank in the silence.
I thought I might be able to see what she knew, what was going on behind her half-closed eyes that slid towards me with light, with integrity, with the fierce will to simply be.
“The world is wonderful,” she said, at last.
And it was.
About the Author
Kate Cobey is a high school senior in Arlington, VA who has been writing serial fiction since she has been able to grip a pen. While she has yet to publish her own novel, she hopes to someday write the kind of stories that inspired her to become a creator.
Outside of writing, she enjoys rowing, traditional art, webcomics, and of course, piloting giant robots.
About the Narrator
Julia Rios is a queer, Latinx writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator whose fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Goblin Fruit, among other places. Currently a Hugo Finalist in three categories, Julia won the Hugo award in 2017 and 2018 as Poetry and Reprint editor for Uncanny Magazine, as well as being a previous Hugo Finalist as a Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.
Julia is a co-host of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, a general SF discussion podcast, and an Escape Artists Storyteller, having narrated for all four podcasts.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include “Knite” and “Fisheye Placebo” webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature.
You can read her comics for free at YuumeiArt.com
Follow on Instagram.com/yuumeiart or support on Patreon.com/Yuumei